Going Beyond Borders: Transatlantic Relations in the Era of ‘America First’”

The crises facing the transatlantic community are more profound that many citizens on either side of the Atlantic realize. A host of challenges, including migration, terrorism, low and uneven growth, high youth unemployment, significant debt, Russian disinformation campaigns, Brexit and the euro crisis, continue to erode domestic politics, economies, and security policies.

While we should be proud of the many transatlantic institutions and initiatives that we’ve forged together over the past 70 years, we cannot afford to be complacent. We must engage in candid conversations about what is working – and what is not – and focus our attention on revitalizing the transatlantic community to more effectively tackle global challenges.

Strains in the Transatlantic Relationship

Although many point to President Trump as the proximate cause of the downturn in U.S.-European relations, transatlantic relations began fraying 15 years ago due to a growing divergence in policy preferences between U.S. and European leaders. In the early 2000s, most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment believed that Europe had transcended the threats that had plagued it throughout the 20th century and advocated for refocusing American attention and funding on other regions. President Trump has expanded on this narrative and taken it to new extremes by openly questioning whether the European Union (EU) supports America’s interests and dangling the threat of steep economic tariffs on the bloc.

The American public has also grown increasingly dubious of supporting America’s post-WWII global leadership role, with a majority of Americans now saying that they want to reduce commitments abroad. Many Americans do not understand why continued U.S. engagement with Europe reaps direct dividends for their country, or why a comparatively stable Europe should remain a U.S. national security priority given the more visible conflicts around the world, from North Korea to ISIS.

Many Europeans are also starting to question the value of deep engagement with the United States due to elevated levels of uncertainty and frustration regarding current U.S. policies (or lack thereof) on a wide range of issues, from the Iran nuclear deal to climate change. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted following the 2017 G-7 summit, “The times in which we could totally depend on others are, to a certain extent, over. I’ve experienced that in the last few days. We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.”

Why Does the Transatlantic Relationship Still Matter?

The United States cannot successfully tackle the enormous global challenges facing us without the help of strong allies, and Europe remains our most like-minded, militarily capable, and financially able partner.

The transatlantic economy generates $5.5 trillion in annual commercial sales and employs up to 15 million workers on both sides of the Atlantic. Together, the EU and the United States account for almost half of global GDP and provide more than three-quarters of official development assistance worldwide. If the United States continues to reduce its own aid spending, it is all the more vital that we engage our European partners to help fill the gap rather than allowing potential adversaries to expand their global influence. China and Russia have already exploited fissures in the transatlantic relationship to further their own economic and political agendas.

Lastly, although several recent reports have highlighted areas where NATO could improve, it remains fundamentally important to U.S. international security interests to maintain a strong multilateral organization with flexible military capabilities that can respond to both conventional and asymmetric security threats around the globe.

Renewing the Atlantic Community for the 21st Century

The key question is not whether the 21st century needs an Atlantic community, but rather what that community should look like and how various stakeholders can reshape and re-energize it. Both sides also need to help develop a new narrative that energizes our electorates and expands public support for the transatlantic partnership.

Federal governments will continue to play a critical role in foreign policy and national security, but they are no longer the sole or most effective actors. Under the best circumstances, policymaking is difficult and requires significant time and energy. In today’s political climate, progress at the intergovernmental level is exceptionally unlikely. President Trump has a much narrower definition of the national interest than any of his predecessors, and it would take an unforeseen catalyst for his administration to walk back its “America First” approach. Meanwhile, many European leaders may increasingly shift their focus to other allies if they lose trust in the United States or believe that the United States views foreign policy and national security as a zero-sum game. As French President Emmanuel Macron recently stated in response to the fact that the United States has not given the EU a permanent exemption to steel and aluminum tariffs, “we won’t talk about anything while there’s a gun pointed at our head.”

Continued engagement at the intergovernmental level remains vital to the long-term health of the Atlantic community, but near-term momentum is more likely to come from other sources. In particular, we should lean in to the power shift toward NGOs and subnational actors, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), transnational movements, the private sector, associations, and individuals. Their increased influence and ability to leverage advances in communications and technology offer an unprecedented opportunity to deepen transatlantic relations at various levels of society. From new grassroots initiatives to the longstanding “Sister Cities” program, there are many avenues for fostering transatlantic cooperation despite gridlock or stagnation at the intergovernmental level. We have already seen several cities and companies take the lead on issues of great importance to the Atlantic community, such as climate change and countering violent extremism.

Support for the transatlantic community runs deep on both sides of the Atlantic, and there are countless organizations that are invested in maintaining strong ties. It is especially crucial that these new efforts focus on engaging the next generation of leaders from across all sectors to ensure that they not only develop into strong advocates for continued US-European partnership but that they also drive new innovation in foreign policy and national security circles. These outreach efforts must also bring new, more diverse voices to the Atlantic community, thus expanding the demographics that benefit from transatlantic relations and ensuring that our debates over the future of the Atlantic community are richer, more creative, and more representative of our societies.


Alexia D’Arco is President of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, a nonpartisan community of over 20,000 emerging global leaders who empower each other to tackle pressing issues in foreign policy and national security. She has previously worked at the U.S. State Department, the U.S. National War College, the Atlantic Council, and the Atlantik-Brücke. Views expressed are her own.

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